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Blended Learning: What It Takes to Do It Right

Several key considerations are crucial to ensuring the success of a blended or online learning initiative

When administrators consider implementing blended learning, they tend to start with technology, evaluating what they have or what they need. But what happens after the technology—the operational side of things—is what can really make or break a blended learning initiative. In this web seminar, originally broadcast on April 16, 2015, an administrator from Clark County School District in Nevada discussed the keys to implementing blended learning from an administrator’s perspective, the most predominant implementation models, and a practical 4-step approach to creating a successful blended learning environment in any district.

KIM LOOMIS
Innovative Projects Coordinator, Innovative Learning Environments (ILE)
Clark County School District

Clark County is the fifth-largest school district in the nation. The Nevada Learning Academy at CCSD is for grades 6 through 12 and has three programs: a 9 through 12 fully online program using the traditional semester calendar, a rolling enrollment independent study program with online content where students come in weekly for proctored exams, and a 6 through 8 middle school flex program with online courses, with the additional support of required face-to-face classes with teachers twice a week. At this time we are gearing up for our online and blended summer school, that will probably host 15,000 students just this summer alone. So, as you can see, we are well on our way toward implementing online and blended learning in lots of different modalities.

Common models

The Clayton Christensen Institute defines different blended learning models. Across the nation, a few of these are the most highly adopted by schools. The “station rotation” model is the one seen often in elementary schools. It could incorporate existing software, or a vendor product, or have teachers develop their own content. A key is to have the online instruction connected to the teacher-led instruction, as well as collaborative or peer activities in the classroom. The other model commonly used across the nation is the “flipped” classroom. Before, we sent books home and asked kids to do homework. In this model, they’re doing homework in the classroom, while at home they’re viewing a lecture or participating in a class discussion.

The “a la carte” model is a little more “disruptive,” breaking away from the mold of the traditional classroom setting. In Clark our high schools have adopted this model for credit recovery programs. With this model we start thinking differently about the classroom. Teachers are working in an online environment, possibly away from students. Students are attending a virtual lab within their traditional school bell schedule and may never “see” the teacher. The adult in the room would be a coach or guide to help support student learning. The key to choosing which model is the best fit for your district is to ask yourself: What’s my goal? Do I want to focus in on a certain student group? What are the capabilities and the goals of my district? Once you’ve determined your goal, you need to think about four important focus areas: content, teaching, technology and operations.

Content

You need to think about content acquisition. Are you going to purchase content? Is what you’re buying aligned to the standards or the local benchmarks? You should also think about student outcomes. What are your expectations? Not every student is suited for online or blended learning, so you need to be careful, especially at the secondary level where you’ve got teachers in different rooms than your students. The learning management system is key. We use the Canvas Learning Management System. Some vendors will tell you that they have a learning management system, but it doesn’t have a gradebook and it’s very difficult for teachers to manage and manipulate. We are very happy with the Canvas Learning Management System because we can customize it. It’s got a gradebook, oral discussions and video discussions. It truly fits our needs for fully online courses and the blended classroom as well.

Teaching

Content is easy to see. It’s easy to buy. It’s easy to provide it to your schools. Teaching, however, is a little more difficult. How do we prepare teachers for online and blended environments? We need teachers to understand the value that online and blended learning can bring to the classroom. A learning management system will do five things more effectively for a teacher every day: Hand out papers, collect papers, grade papers, put grades into a gradebook, and return work to students. Imagine an online system that can do all of that and how much time it would save.

The myth has always been that online and blended learning would take the teacher out of the classroom. But all it has done is take them off the stage. We need to help teachers understand that when using online delivery of content, their role changes, but the standards and expectations are still the same. Now, they can target their instruction to those students one-on-one, or in small groups. They’ve always wanted to do that, but didn’t have the time or the opportunity. Conveying all of these concepts is why professional development is so important.

In Clark, we’ve created a two-tier teacher preparation program. That first tier is what we just talked about, which is helping teachers understand online and blended learning and what their place is in this new environment. It’s pedagogy and philosophy. It starts with the teacher becoming an online student first, as they prepare for this arena. In the second tier, we teach them how to point and click in the tools needed for this environment. This includes using Canvas and other tools that we’re deploying, such as mobile devices, and developing your own online content, such as making online instructional videos. The key is changing their mindset first and helping them understand why we’re heading in this direction before asking them to change to online and blended learning.

Technology

Another visual part of blended learning adoption is the technology, but there are some unseen parts of technology that must be considered as well. The ongoing cost of ownership is an important consideration when you are dealing with technology. Interoperability is also important. In Clark, we have several vendor learning management system as well as the Canvas Learning Management System. We’re currently working on getting interconnectivity with our student information system, so that we don’t have to batch-upload student information into our systems. Hand enrollment and even batch-upload can each be too time-consuming for staff.

When you are considering a hardware purchase, you want to ask yourself: How will students access it? Is it in a classroom? Is it in a lab? Or do I have a mobile cart that teachers need to share? The number of students makes a difference, too. If you have a small number of students, then the rotation model may be best. Even a flipped classroom is not bad if you have a small amount of technology, as there will be kids who don’t watch that video at home and when they show up at the beginning of class teachers will need to stop them for five minutes and put them on a laptop or an iPad so they can watch and catch up. You also have to ask yourself: What technology platform should we use? Are we going to use mobile, laptops or desktops? They all have different positives and negatives.

Operations

Operations and support often get overlooked. Again, this is an unseen part of building a blended program. Educators often think that if they have the technology, teachers in the classroom and software, that’s all they need. You need to ask yourself: What kind of support services will you have with your students? What happens when you have a student in a credit recovery online course and they need help, and their teacher is a fully online teacher, already teaching six periods of the day? Where will that support come from? It’s critically important that you consider these types of support and operations issues to ensure that any blended or online learning initiative is successful.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please visit: www.districtadministration.com/ws041615